Practicing Improvisation

Daniel Barbiero
December 2017

What is it like to improvise—a piece of music, a dance, a literary work? It seems a simple question, but an attempt to answer it by, for example, reflecting on a performance after the fact or—and this is much more difficult—observing oneself performing during the performance—reveals a fairly complex set of phenomena. While the improvised work or gesture may seem like a spontaneous upsurge unencumbered by formal constraints or conventions—this is something of a Romantic view of it, which many still hold—when we take a deeper look we’re apt to find it to be the product of multiple formative factors. Once we shift our focus to these factors, the question then becomes: What underlies and affords the experience of improvisation?

Any given improvisation can be analyzed in terms specific to the field or discipline of which it is a part. For example, an improvised dance can be described as an unfolding of movements and phrases; improvised speech can be broken down into its component vocabulary, meaning and prosody; and a musical improvisation can be analyzed in terms of its harmonies, textures, dynamics, and so forth. But to take the more general view of improvisation per se–the category that contains all of these disparate instances—is to step back and to try to find what it is that facilitates improvisation no matter what form it takes.

Through a series of theoretical analyses, descriptive examples and personal recollections, Gary Peters, chair of philosophy and performance at York St. John University in York, England and himself an improvising musician, attempts to do just that. In Improvising Improvisation, Peters looks at the experience of improvisation from within a framework informed by his own practical activities as well as by a Continental philosophical tradition running from Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche through Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze and Badiou. The resulting book was itself largely improvised; Peters describes it as having been “written each and every day from scratch” (vii). This gives it a conversational shape and structural looseness akin to thinking aloud, at times hesitantly, on paper that can be appealing. And like many conversations, it doesn’t conclude so much as it simply comes to a stop when words run out and it’s time to stop.

Improvisation as Situation

Before it is anything—a series of movements, a sequence or interplay of sounds, an arrangement of colors on a canvas—an improvisation is what Peters calls a “predicament within which one finds oneself or into which one is ‘thrown’” (ix). With its echo of Heidegger—the intellectual figure whose presence looms largest throughout the book—this perspective sees in improvisation a microcosm of the basic fact of human existence, of one’s being put in the midst of a world in which one inexorably must act on the basis of the possibilities one sees in the available materials and relationships in which one is enmeshed. To see improvisation in this way is to see it as being grounded in a particular situation offering concrete possibilities, tools and challenges.

By taking this view, Peters emphasizes what might be termed the structural or constitutive conditions in which improvisation is grounded. Consequently, he advocates a model of improvisation more complex than the trial-and-error model, one illuminated instead by the understanding that improvisation is undergirded and afforded by aesthetic judgments rooted in something deeper, and more persistent, than the real-time choices through which they manifest themselves in specific instances. On this account, any improvisation is, as a practice and a project, something that takes place within a framework which makes it possible. It is something that happens within a set of available possibilities that are themselves made possible by how one interprets them and by the nature of the background—of skills, norms, past instances—one brings to them. As Peters points out, the improviser inevitably comes to the improvisation prepared to some extent.

Practice and Preparation

One of the virtues of Improvising Improvisation, in fact, is its attention to the role of preparation in improvisation. To acknowledge that improvisation, no less than any other skilled activity, presupposes some semblance of preparation is at least superficially to run against the Romantic view of improvisation as spontaneous activity. And it also seems odd—again, superficially—to hold that one can prepare for a situation that doesn’t involve any preexisting parts to prepare. But as Peters notes, “all this discipline and disciplining…is necessary to the extent that it allows the improviser to begin and sustain a work with a degree of certitude” (24).  The improvisational situation itself may be open and for that reason may involve a measure of uncertainty, but the improviser nevertheless needs something on the basis of which he or she can confidently construct—or compose—a convincing work in real time. It is this underlying, and often overlooked, element of certainty or confidence that interests Peters and that moves him to dig into the practical forms that preparation takes.

In considering the types of preparation germane to improvisation, Peters draws an important distinction between rehearsal and practicing. The former seems to consist in learning something to be reproduced more-or-less as-is during a performance, while the latter would seem to pertain to learning, and learning to use, the elements that, combined, varied and transformed in novel ways in real time, make up the substance of an improvised performance. While Peters discusses the distinction between practicing and rehearsing in the often-obscure terminology of Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, it is a distinction that, closer to home, often reveals itself in the different uses we make of the two terms in ordinary language. We say that we practice scales and other sets of pitches and sounds, fingerings, articulations and so forth which we draw on but rarely if ever simply reproduce as-is in a performance, whereas we rehearse a song or a choreographed dance, whose form we reproduce when we perform it, even if we improvise within that form. The line between practice and rehearsal isn’t always sharply drawn—we can, for instance, practice movements, passages or phrases that are meant to be reproduced exactly as part of a larger work. The difference in this case is based on the difference between part and whole: we practice parts of a work in order to reproduce them exactly, but the work itself we rehearse in its entirety, usually with a specific performance imminent. Ambiguities aside, there does seem to be a difference between practicing and rehearsing that we intuitively grasp and express in everyday speech, even if there’s necessarily some fuzziness to the boundary line between them.

Calling attention to practice and rehearsal in the context of improvisation as Peters does, is a crucial move, as it does illuminate something about the nature of the background needed to make improvisation possible. This is especially true when we consider the role of practice, which tends to aim at developing skills or competences that can be used across cases and in different situations. Because these skills can be generalized beyond the specific circumstances in which they are acquired, they represent a form of embodied understanding. Peters sums it up well when he writes that, in essence, “practice is about transforming knowledge into habit” (155).

Habit and Interpretation

Thus one of the central issues Peters raises in Improvising Improvisation is the important, if often overlooked or disparaged, role of habit and its place within improvisation. He rightly notes the bad connotations “habit” still largely carries in relation to improvisation, and wants to offer instead a “more affirmative perspective” on how habit informs extemporized performances. To be sure, habit has often been seen as the antithesis of authentic improvisation. To some critics, John Cage famously among them, improvisation itself seemed to reduce to an empty display of habit—to the “exercise of taste and memory,” as he put it in a letter to Leonard Bernstein. While there may be some validity to these objections—it’s true that an uninspired improvisation may simply fall into the airing of clichés played thoughtlessly and reflexively, and Peters’ observation that “the outwitting of habit is a central issue” for much improvisation (115) is well taken—they ignore the formative and indeed necessary part that habit has in enabling an improviser to improvise with skill. The key, as Peters suggests, isn’t to ignore or downplay the role of habit, which in all likelihood can never be eliminated in music or in life, but to adopt the most fruitful stance toward understanding it and to commit to it in the spirit of transforming it from potentially being a merely mechanical reflex into an instrument at the service of one’s creative project. I would suggest that the first step in understanding the role habit plays in enabling improvisation entails grasping its cognitive function. Simply put, habit consists in a pattern of skilled responses to the world. Habit, in other words, is more than the rote repetition of reactions to given situations; instead, it encodes and embodies knowledge. In the context of improvisation, habit is the embodied aspect of aesthetic judgment as deployed in real time.

To see this, consider improvisation as consisting in what Peters characterizes as “a regime and enactment of choice” (132). As an improviser, I make an ongoing set of choices that express my relationship to the unfolding improvisation. This relationship is constitutive and cognitive—that is to say that as I play I make formal and expressive choices that shape the overall performance in ways that reflect my way of grasping it, of understanding it and responding accordingly. My choices are the products of my ongoing judgments, just as the improvisation is the product of my choices. Seen this way, a musical improvisation involves an ongoing hermeneutic, an interpretation in sound of the performance as a composition in progress as it unfolds. This latter consists in the dynamic construction—the arrangement and rearrangement–of formal elements as they arise, coalesce, endure, and dissolve in time. The hermeneutic or interpretive dimension is expressed in the formal decisions made on the basis of the improviser’s aesthetic language and inclinations, as filtered through his or her attunement to the developing performance, to the group of performers with whom he or she may be improvising, to the environment in which in the performance takes place, and to him- or herself as an involved participant immersed to whatever degree in the purposive activity of performance. All of these interpretive turns are realized concretely in the choices made over the course of the improvisation.

Choice, in turn is dependent on possibility, both in terms of what the situation offers us as possible within the limits of the materials, tools and obstacles it provides, and in terms of what our own resources allow us to grasp as authentically possible for us. Habits make up a part, and an important one, of those available resources. Rather than see them as the mechanical enactment of an unfelt or unengaged reflex (as, granted, they sometimes can be), we could instead see them as an accumulated pattern of embodied knowledge, judgments, behaviors and capabilities gained and honed through training, example and experience. Habit, understood this way, represents a past that makes a future possible.

Commitment and Chance

The problem remains of how to keep the techniques, forms and responsive patterns ingrained as habit from ossifying and degenerating into empty cliché. Here Peters’ chapter on Borges’ story of Pierre Menard, which at first seems an incongruous digression, offers some insight. In Borges’ story, Menard sets out to rewrite Don Quixote word-for-word and yet produce an entirely new work. Taken literally, an absurdity. But as an allegory for the transformation of habit into creativity, it isn’t so absurd after all.

Consider the matter of idiomatic vs non-idiomatic improvisation, which Peters does in the chapter preceding the chapter on Menard. Idiomatic improvisation involves the acceptance of a set of received forms and structures which, as Peters suggests, can exercise varying degrees of constraint on the performer, depending on how specific or open those forms and structures happen to be. Non-idiomatic improvisation would then consist in the “avoidance of the idiomatic” or “the will not to will…the idiomatic,” and irony would offer one way of doing that (86-87). This is where the parallel to Borges’ Menard comes in. If Menard’s project involves the repetition of a work in a spirit of irony, then the recreated Don Quixote, even if identical in all respects to the original, would lack the original’s meaning. Even if the form is reproduced precisely in every detail, the meaning it carries has been transformed by the ironist’s way of wrenching the form from its original context and reframing it by placing it elsewhere. The question is, though, who would notice it? How would the reader or listener grasp the ironist’s engagement? How could it be conveyed? I suspect the answer would have something to do with changing the context in which the ironized form is presented, and through the resulting incongruity, soliciting the critical skills of the audience.

Menard’s project would represent an extreme case if taken literally. But the larger question it suggests—the question of how the improviser creates something new out of the material he or she crafts into an improvisation—remains. The answer, I think, is to see this material in light of the possibilities it offers, and the possibilities it makes possible. To embrace skill, habits and other tools available to the improviser as resources and to see them as means of realizing possibilities—as suggested above–rather than as rote motions one simply goes through, is one way of reframing them as elements that make possible a viable, engaged project. Put another way, our skills and habits—what we know how to do and how we do it–serve as the vocabulary we use in generating novel and unpredictable behaviors and responses to the situations, themselves often novel and unpredictable, we find ourselves in—such as an improvisation. As Peters phrases it, the “discovery of an improvisation through the revelation of habitual behavior is not to confront the deeply known but the radically unknown” (141). In the end preparation, like Mallarmé’s throw of the dice, doesn’t eliminate chance.

So despite the presence and persistence of the preparation lying in back of any improvised gesture, there is always an element of uncertainty proper to improvisation, as indeed there is to any human project or projected action—the uncertainty that inheres in the undetermined nature of the future in which the project is to be realized. The future that we want to be does not have to be, and may not be, despite our best efforts. As a result, as Peters notes, “the work unfolding before us could have been, and can still be, different” (27).

Coming to an Ending

Peters’ book represents an ambitious attempt to reframe the way we think about improvisation and to phrase it in the vocabulary of Continental philosophy. Some of these terms are more transparent than others, and at times the path of the argument becomes entangled in an undergrowth of abstractions. Although it occasionally seems to lose its way—as can happen during an extemporized performance—the book contains some valuable insights into the nature of improvisation, particularly in regard to the preconditions underlying improvisation—the cognitive and physical resources that improvisation presupposes and indeed is dependent on. Because in the end, improvisation involves judgment informed by a sense of possibility—of what future state can be realized on the basis of the given, both “outside” in terms of the situation in which action must take place, and “inside” in terms of what capabilities can be brought to bear in realizing this projected state.

In light of these preconditions, the Romantic view of improvisation takes on a different color. An upwelling of free expression grounded in the improviser’s emotional state as he or she is moved by whatever momentary affective forces are in play, is by no means ruled out. Instead, we can see that upwelling as the result of a skilled actor making choices grounded in a practiced judgment and afforded by habit. It is a virtue of Peters’ book that he looks at how these skills and judgments might work in theory and, through the examples he offers, in real life.

Gary Peters: Improvising Improvisation: From out of Philosophy, Music, Dance & Literature (Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2017)

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